How San Antonio Remade Itself, With The Help Of A World’s Fair

Fifty years ago, San Antonio’s civic and business leaders brought HemisFair ’68 to the city, ushering in a new era of economic development and attention for the Alamo City on the world stage.

By Michael MarksApril 12, 2018 10:04 am| ,

There’s a saying that every Texan has two hometowns: their own, and San Antonio. Historically, culturally and personally – somehow all Texans have a connection to the Alamo City. But as we learn in the first of a three-part series on the 50th anniversary of HemisFair ’68, San Antonio hasn’t always been the modern, tourist-ready town it is today. Getting there involved a few growing pains – and a massive party.

Robert Treviño didn’t know it then, but 50 years ago he had a front-row seat to the event that created the San Antonio we know today.

“We would go onto the roof of our house on Lavaca Street and we could see the whole fair full of people, and the whole world had come down to our city of San Antonio,” Treviño says.

Treviño’s family lived next to what then-Texas Governor John Connally called “the most exciting 92 acres in America:” the 1968 World’s Fair, better known as HemisFair. The downtown exhibition ran for half a year, and had over six million visitors. The theme of the fair was a confluence of civilizations.

“So you had people from Germany, from Russia, from South America, Mexico. It was all these cultures that were showing, you know, showing their best,” Treviño says.

Today, San Antonio seems like a natural choice for a world’s fair. It’s the country’s seventh-biggest city, a gateway to Latin America and demographically, a preview of what’s to come for the United States. And it has all the amenities you’d expect from a major tourist destination. But that wasn’t the case before the fair.

“The business community really had to rouse itself from torpor. I mean nothing had happened basically in San Antonio for about 40 years, since the Depression hit,” says Lewis Fisher, a San Antonio historian.

At the end of the 19th century, San Antonio was the premier city in Texas. It had the state’s biggest population, and it was home to the Alamo, the very cradle of Texas liberty itself. But as the 20th century began, the city started to slip. Houston siphoned off the oil businesses that had been headquartered in San Antonio. And in the 1930s, Dallas quietly became the state’s largest city. Regaining that title was so important to some San Antonians that they started a campaign to annex suburbs and military bases. That didn’t work. But even as other cities surpassed San Antonio, its civic leaders still felt assured that their city would host the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936. This was a massive celebration of the state’s first 100 years, and cities competed to host the event.

“And other cities came up with great packages,” Fisher says. “San Antonio sat back and the basic attitude was ‘Well we have the Alamo, we have the history, we are entitled to have the fair.’ Well guess who went in with an aggressive package and got it but Dallas. And even though Dallas didn’t have the Alamo, that didn’t bother them. They built a replica of the Alamo and stuck their thumb in San Antonio’s eye.”

In the decades that followed, San Antonio settled into a civic and economic malaise. By the time the HemisFair idea took root in 1962, it seemed like mana from heaven to people like Tom Frost.

“I almost think it was Adam Smith’s invisible hand, or probably the provenance of the Lord himself,” says Frost, who is the chairman emeritus of Frost Bank and a vice president of the HemisFair project.

Now putting on a fair may not seem like the most obvious economic development scheme. But city leaders had some specific goals in mind:

“No question, we all knew right from the beginning, the fair was to build a hospitality industry,” Frost says.

That meant building both physical infrastructure and technical know-how. Remember that economically, San Antonio just meandered along for decades before HemisFair. People didn’t really know what it took to bring the whole world to town. And the whole world certainly didn’t know how to get to San Antonio – something Frost learned on a trip to convince South American governments to participate in the fair.

“The first thing I realized is when you went down to South America, the only thing people knew about Texas was Kennedy was shot in Dallas, and the Astrodome was in Houston,” Frost says. “They didn’t even know San Antonio existed. In one place they asked us if we had an airport.”

Which, they did. But they had a lot more by the time the city was ready for the fair in 1968. Municipal bonds, federal money, state money, and private underwriting helped physically transform San Antonio. It paid for the arena that was the first home of the San Antonio Spurs, the city’s first luxury hotel, plus…

“The convention center, the Tower of the Americas, which is still a big attraction here in town. The expansion of the Riverwalk. All of these things for people to do which, to this day, feed our local economy. We are very much a tourist-driven economy and it’s really thanks to HemisFair,” says Sarah Gould, the lead curator at the Institute of Texan Cultures, which was also built for HemisFair.

The expansion of the city’s tourist economy didn’t happen overnight. There were more attractions, but city leaders still had to master the skills they learned from HemisFair, like attracting foreign investment and building a visitors’ bureau.

“It made us realize who we are, what we are. We just slowly but surely got to where we were looked upon as a large enough city to have things happen here,” says Frost.

And things have happened. The tourists came, and a modern San Antonio followed. The economic base that tourism provided helped the city diversify, and expand industries like medicine and technology. Not that there isn’t still room to grow. But HemisFair helped San Antonio develop into a city that any Texan would be proud to call home.

Photo courtesy of UTSA Libraries Special Collections at ITC

HemisFair Tower, and the building where the U.S. Hosted its world fair exhibition